The Human Hand in Climate Change

Kerry Emanuel (whose influential scientific work we’ve discussed here previously) has written a particularly lucid and poignant popular article on climate change for the literary forum “Boston Review”. The article is entitled Phaeton’s Reins: The human hand in climate change. We thought it worth passing along.

248 comments on this post.
  1. Ike Solem:

    There is one quote from this article by Kerry Emmanuel that needs further discussion (numbers added):

    “Is this really so bad? In all the negative publicity about global warming, it is easy to overlook the benefits: (1) It will take less energy to heat buildings, (2) Previously infertile lands of high latitudes will start producing crops, and (3) there will be less suffering from debilitating cold waves. (4) Increased CO2 might also make crops grow faster.”

    Regarding (1), reduced heating oil demand and sales in the Northeast this winter support this; this is also why oil prices remain lowish – but will more air conditioning demands offset this factor?

    Regarding (2), this seems questionable. For example, what will happen to the growing season in Alaska under warming scenarios? Climatic instability is a large threat to crops; note that the Western US orange crop in particular was already on edge due to unseasonable heat this past summer before it was knocked out entirely by the recent Western US cold freeze – which only lasted a brief time, but that was enough.

    Regarding (3) see number 2. From the article:

    *Rainfall will continue to become concentrated in increasingly heavy but less frequent events.
    *The incidence, intensity, and duration of both floods and drought will increase.

    If this is so, then that means a more variable distribution of water vapor in the atmosphere; in the winter that means more frequent cold snaps – or is that an overassumption?

    Regarding (4), this is probably the most questionable point because it ignores the notion of ‘limiting nutrients’ in plant growth – it is true that if you grow annual plants in controlled environments – where temperature, humidity, nitrogen and other nutrient levels can be optimally adjusted – and then raise the CO2 levels, you see an increase in plant growth – but only because you have artificially created a situation where CO2 is limiting to plant growth. Outside the greenhouse, factors such as temperature, water, nitrogen and phosphate levels limit plant growth.

    Furthermore, plants aren’t simply carbon dioxide sponges; when they have abundant carbon dioxide their storage areas (roots, etc.) become ‘full’ and they then downregulate their CO2-fixing Rubisco proteins and simply fix less CO2; this has been demonstrated by plant physiology experiments (for example Van Oosten et al, 1995; there are many similar peer-reviewed reports.

    There is another factor: the possible decrease in the biosphere’s ability to absorb CO2 as a result of temperature extremes…and a resulting increase in the rate of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. This is a distinct possibility.

    On the other hand, you have Sherwood Idso promoting the “benefits of CO2 fertilization” and producing ‘publications’ such as Biological Consequences of Increased Concentrations of Atmospheric CO2, which has never been submitted for peer review by plant physiologists (for good reasons!). For example, he writes this blatantly false statement: “The veracity of these claims is supported by literally hundreds of experiments that have convincingly demonstrated that the more CO2 there is in the air, the better plants perform their many vital functions.”

    Just on basic physiological grounds, plants have to breathe (respire) just as humans do, and (just like humans) will suffocate under truly high CO2 conditions. Furthermore, experiments with short-lived annuals demonstrated reduced photosynthetic efficiency under high CO2 levels, and the response of trees has not been studied much. There are a few references involving CO2 stimulation in forest plantations, but water and fertilizer were both necessary, and the effects were not all beneficial: here, and also here

    At this point, it seems relevant to mention Politics, in the sense that politicians are obviously influenced by their funding sources. The Fraser Insitute, where Idso’s piece was ‘published’, is described at ExxonSecrets: The Fraser Institute. It is a Canadian based think tank whose chief scientist is one Kenneth Green, author of “Global Warming: Understanding the Debate”, who was rather prominently featured in the recent RC discussion, Calling All Science Teachers as an NSTA-promoted author suitable for K-12 classrooms.

    So, when you see think tanks and ‘educational institutions’ benefiting from fossil fuel industry funding and going to great lengths to influence public opinion on the dangers of global warming, you really have to conclude that they are attempting to politicize the scientific debate in order to avoid the necessary 70-90% reductions in CO2 emissions (read: fossil fuel sales) that will be required to avoid the high end of global warming predictions.

  2. teacher ocean:

    Of course one would care if a potential job candidate for assistant professor in a geology department is a creationist. The age of the Earth is 4.6 billion years. A creationist may favor a number like 4004 years. Therein lies the problem. Faculty posiitons come with a teaching component. And geology professors need to respect the science and the scientific method so they may teach it well. It’s like a job requirement. Would an atheist be effective as a priest?

  3. Joseph O'Sullivan:

    As far as the things Dr. Emanuel writes about, like the things that Ike Solem (#102)quotes, I think he is trying to show how there are many complexities that are not easily characterized as “good” or “bad”.

    Considering the audience of the magazine he writes for (a lay audience in a literary and political magazine) he does a good job of demonstrating that there are multiple sides of climate change that need to be examined when political action is discussed and before actions are taken.

    If you look beyond the “radical environmental groups” part its a very well written article.

  4. Andrew Dodds:

    Lynn (99) and Jane (94) –

    To illustrate the problem with this (Refering only to electric grids..):

    Most western countries have as mixture of supply for the electric grids, being coal, nuclear, hydro and natural gas powered in various proportions (Say 25% each for this example). Typically, all the hydro sites are already taken, so this isn’t going to change.

    Now, if we do a large scale conservation program, we may be able to save 20% of our electricity consumption – ignoring economic and population growth. However, if ovcer the same time period we have phased out nuclear, then we are already left with an energy gap; probably small enough to fill with renewables.

    So having undergone all the ‘easy’ energy saving changes, we haven’t actually reduced CO2 emissions at all.

    But it’s worse than that, because with local natural gas sources rapidly depleting in western countries, additional supplies will have to come from larger distances, losing perhaps a third of the gas en-route just to transport the rest. So the net emissions from the NG plants will have risen 33%. Or (and this is basically the same effect) natural gas will have been replaced by coal – this is already happening – with consequent rises in CO2 emissions.

    So you could well find, even if the policies advocated by the anti-nuclear environmentalist camp were followed – strong conservation, renewables and phasing out of nuclear – we could easily find ourselves 15-20 years down the road with *increased* net emissions from the power sector. And bear in mind that achieving even a 20% reduction in power usage in the face of population and economic growth is getting towards wishful thinking.

  5. Pavel Chichikov:

    Of course one would care if a potential job candidate for assistant professor in a geology department is a creationist. The age of the Earth is 4.6 billion years. A creationist may favor a number like 4004 years. “Therein lies the problem. Faculty posiitons come with a teaching component. And geology professors need to respect the science and the scientific method so they may teach it well. It’s like a job requirement. Would an atheist be effective as a priest?”

    But the problem under discussion is not filling a faculty position. It’s gathering political and social support for measures that may possibly effect global climate change.

  6. Nigel Williams:

    Following on from #102, (2) Previously infertile lands of high latitudes will start producing crops,

    but I wonder how suitable once-we-were-tundra soils will be for immediate cultivation? Unlike the soils of the US mid-west and other bread basket areas, I would imagine that artic soils would be severly leached of minerals in the upper portions – usually leaving a hard pan of minerals some way below the surface.

    I understand that such soils can only be rejuvenated in sub-human-generational timeframes by enormous effort by GHG-emitting machines to rip through the mineral pan to mix and re-introduce the minerals to the poorer surface soils, and to provide drainage which will be essential under the higher rainfall (vs snowfall) climate.

    Added to this, and new pasture will require large amounts of imported fertiliser and agro-chemicals to kick-start mass-production – which are virtually all oil-based, and/or require oil to transport to the site and to apply. All contributing to more GHG emissions.

    Hardly a rapid or a zero-impact process!

  7. John L. McCormick:

    RE # 106

    Nigel, your comment regarding quality of top soil in the higher latitudes of the NH was on point but will be lost in the noise of this meandering thread.

    It is easy to imagine how the rich topsoil of southern Illinois origniated. And, because it was transported south, in part, by glacial action during the last ice age, the origin point north has (surprise) thinner high grade topsoil. I am not a soil scientist but this would be an opportune time for someone with that knowledge to jump in here.

    The idea we can simply shift the US grain basket to a warmer northern latitude is the fantasy of those who point and click and make things happen on their computer screen.

    Thanks for the dose or reality. Please provide more.

  8. Sashka:

    The amount of negative feedback that Emanuel’s article generated in this blog very well illustrates the validity of his point regarding radical environmental groups.

    This resonates very well with our recent discussion of new heresy. Prof. Emanuel did nothing more than provided a sober analysis and he is immediately accused of heresy. That’s very sad.

  9. Lynn Vincentnathan:

    #100, it’s good to hear they are finally letting the Navajo uranium miners wear safety equipment.

    I’m not so much opposed to nuclear, as in favor of doing all we can to reduce our energy consumption in ways that do not undercut productivity or lifestyles (at first), and implement more alt energy. After we do all we can in this direction (which I think would easily cut GHG emissions by 60%, then we can think about maybe sacrificing — forgoing a few pleasure trips, etc. — and getting down to an 70% cut. Then we can look to wind & minipower generation (mini-hydro (if you have a little stream by your home or a downspout off your roof), mini-solar, mini-wind).

    Finally we could build one nuke to supply all our energy. And since these have to run continuously, then during off-peak hours they could pump water up into some dam, then during peak hours they could generate hydro power (I actually got that idea from a ComEd person in Chicago).

    If you think I’m crazy, please do read NATURAL CAPITALISM ( ) & the ROCKY MOUNTAIN INSTITUTE website ( ) for starters. There was an industry that was able to cut its energy needs by 90% without reducing productivity — the technique is called “tunneling through.”

    Once all the known tech it thus used to reduce our GHG by 80%+, then we can start motivating inventors to come up with some really innovative ideas. Like offer some prizes or profits… At the very least, stop slashing funding to alt energy deparments (as the current admin is doing).

    This “can’t do” attitude re reducing our GHGs is pretty sickening.

  10. Grant:

    Re: #109 (Sashka)

    You’re guilty of circular logic. Using the response to the article as illustrating the validity of his point, assumes that he’s right. If he isn’t, then all the criticism here is just a rational reaction to his editorializing.

  11. Hank Roberts:

    Now, are you writing that because you _do_ believe it, or because you _don’t_ believe it?
    Last I recall you wrote what you write here is things mostly that you do not believe.
    I wasn’t sure whether to believe you or not.

  12. Nick Gotts:

    With regard to Emanuel’s attack on environmentalists, it may be useful rhetorically to appeal to his audience, but what he says is simply untrue – nuclear power stagnated mostly for economic reasons, secondarily because of TMI and Chernobyl – and if the environmentalists’ pleas for investment in energy conservation and renewables had been heeded in the 70s and 80s, we’d be in far better shape. France’s nuclear power industry is heavily subsidised and, of course, integrally linked to its nuclear weapons programme.

    Re #75 “To change the subject, I think the energy consumption in agriculture issue is worthy of its own RealClimate discussion.” – Blair Dowden

    More generally, GHG emissions (and sequestration) in rural land use and land use change. Just to start this going, here’s a top-of-the-head rundown of issues as I currently understand them:

    In mitigation terms, direct energy consumption for machinery etc. seems to be tiny compared to other sectors. The biggest GHG contributions from agriculture itself are CH4 from ruminants (work is underway on feed additives to reduce this) and N2O from fertiliser use; CO2 from food transport is significant; so are the changes in carbon uptake/release with different land uses and with the process of shifting from one use to another (most notably deforestation to grow crops mainly as cattle feed, but planting trees can also cause considerable CO2 release) and land management techniques (e.g “no-till” agriculture). Biofuels seem to be a seriously bad “alternative” to fossil fuels – cutting down forest for palm oil plantations is the economically most competitive approach, and apart from the other consequences, causes huge CO2 release. Ethanol from corn as Bush suggests has marginal benefits, unless coal is used to get the sugar out, in which case it has none. In any case it’s not feasible as a general replacement strategy – it would just take too much land.

    With regard to adaptation, farmers are pretty good at dealing with fast-changing and unpredictable conditions, both climatic and economic, but of course there are limits, and the world as a whole currently depends on large surpluses over local need from the Americas and Australia. A shift to less meat (particularly beef) and dairy would help enormously in allowing reserves to be built up in case of serious crop failures, as well as cutting CH4 emissions and deforestation.

  13. Ike Solem:

    I think you need to distinguish between honest scientific discussion aimed at illuminating issues and politically motivated polemics – I think anyone interested in the science should be very happy that this piece was published, as it provides a good basis for discussion. I don’t see anyone accusing Prof Emmanuel of “scientific heresy”; the ‘negative responses’ seem to focus on the ‘politics’ issue. “Heresy” seems like a public relations phrase, in any case.

    The best response to global warming is an energy engineering issue; solar power, wind power, biofuels, geothermal sources, and nuclear power all have certain benefits and disadvantages in various circumstances…unfortunately, distinguishing between honest discussion and clever public relations press releases is difficult. Nuclear may be theoretically safe, but not if cost-cutting measures lead to the elimination of safety systems – and there is always the waste disposal problem to deal with. Biofuels can be carbon-neutral, but not if large amounts of fossil fuel are used in growing crops and distilling ethanol. Solar and wind are very clean once the panels and turbines are manufactured, but the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind is also intermittent, so there is an energy storage problem. Energy-efficient technology has obvious benefits (10 mpg vs 60 mpg – a 600% increase in efficiency). Any rational discussion of these issues relative to global warming needs to be based on long-term lifecycle energy/carbon estimates… not exactly the topic that RC focuses on.

    RE#107, I agree with #108 – thanks for the reality check.

  14. Karen Street:

    Re uranium mining — 85 times natural cancer rate means several people getting cancer multiple times. However, before ventilation was introduced into uranium mines in the late 1950s, miners were exposed to radon. 335 excess deaths from lung cancer among the miners were found by 1990. The US government and mine owners were irresponsible in not ventilating mines earlier.

    Currently, a thousand US coal miners or so die each year, primarily from black lung disease. The death rate is higher here than in Australia, and substantially higher in the Ukraine and China. In the Ukraine, as many coal miners have died from accidents alone since Chernobyl as people are expected to die over 8 decades from Chernobyl.

    I believe that people (Holdren anyway) are talking about decreased crop and ecosystem productivity pretty much everywhere once temperature increase reaches 2.5 C; the moderate scenario for BAU gets us there the third quarter of this century. Check back February 2.

  15. James:

    Re #94 etc: Why shouldn’t all miners, not just uranium miners, have safe working conditions? We frequently see news accounts of trapped coal miners, with dramatic hour-by-hour accounts of rescue efforts and the final recovery of the dead & (sometimes) a few survivors. That’s if it’s in the US, of course: we only hear vague reports of accidents in places like China & Siberia. There are likewise ongoing reports of deaths in refinery fires, conventional powerplant accidents, natural gas explosions…

    There seems to be a massive intellectual disconnect among the anti-nuclear lobby, as if a nuclear-related death is in some strange way far, far worse than a death from any other cause. This disconnect somehow causes a selective blindness to real-world experience, which is that deaths from nuclear power are 10-100 times less (per MWh generated) than from conventional sources – and that’s not even counting the inevitable future consequences of environmental damage.

    Consider that just _one_ set of hydrolectric dam failures, Banqiao, China in the mid-70s, killed something like 170,000 people. (Compared to less than 50 killed by Chernobyl.) Yet no one goes into public hysterics about living downstream from a hydroelectric dam: if there’s opposition, it’s because of scenic values, or the damage done to fish.

    Things nuclear seems to have become a modern Satan, the fear of which drives out all capacity for rational thought. Yet the real irony is that we ourselves – indeed, the entire Earth – are just radioactive waste, the fallout from the nuclear explosions of long-dead stars. Remember? “We are stardust…”

  16. Sashka:

    Re: 114

    I don’t believe in clear separation of science and policy which is best illustrated by the volume of policy discussion generated even in most scientific (by original intent) threads.

    In this case, Emanuel used the word “radical” which at first sight seems to be political, not scientific. In reality he also made a statement about the science (pseudo-science, if I may) beyond this “radical” thinking. No wonder that people who align themselves with this camp are up in arms.

  17. Mitch Golden:

    Re #91: Perhaps your parsing of Prof. Emanuel’s discussion is correct. As I said in my post, the signal *had* come out of the noise by then – even though, yes, there was more uncertainty remaining then than now. (And to further the impact of Hansen’s statements, 1988 was an endless, hot summer, which may have had something to do with why the Congress was finally looking at the issue.)

    Either way, I still find it odd that in such a short article, nearly 20 years after the fact, Emanuel finds it necessary to bring up this event, unless he wants to be critical of Hansen.

  18. Nick Gotts:

    Re #115. The Chernobyl figure of 50 is of deaths so far, and includes only those among workers exposed to high radiation doses in the immediate aftermath, not the local population, let alone those further afield. It is from an IAEA report which estimates the final total at perhaps 4000 (according to the Chair of the IAEA commission that produced the figure, the Chernobyl Forum, this is “a very rough scoping estimate” i.e. a guess). The IAEA is of course strongly pro-nuclear. WHO estimates 8000 deaths so far among the local population, and still does not take account of those further away. Other estimates, which do try to take all those exposed to increased radiation into account, have been far higher (though some at least are from strongly anti-nuclear sources). None of this makes large-scale hydro a good idea either. Contrary to what you say, opposition to big dams is not just on the grounds of scenic value, or damage to fish. Displacement of local populations, sometimes 100,000s of people, has generated enormous opposition – have you never heard of Narmada or Three Gorges? Forced off their land, many of the displaced people will in fact die prematurely as a result. Moreover, drowned vegetation can produce vast quantities of methane, and dams often silt up quickly, reducing the power they can generate and depriving downstream floodplains of nutrients. Take a look at

  19. Barton Paul Levenson:

    Re “There seems to be a massive intellectual disconnect among the anti-nuclear lobby, as if a nuclear-related death is in some strange way far, far worse than a death from any other cause. This disconnect somehow causes a selective blindness to real-world experience, which is that deaths from nuclear power are 10-100 times less (per MWh generated) than from conventional sources – and that’s not even counting the inevitable future consequences of environmental damage.”

    You have a point. Actual deaths so far from nuclear power pale in comparison to the potential deaths from a really bad accident. Of course, some epidemiologists think the Chernobyl disaster will kill several thousand people prematurely, but it’s hard to attribute a given case of child thyroid cancer specifically to Chernobyl.

  20. Burn boron in pure O2 for car power:

    “The IAEA is strongly pro-nuclear” — well, it is not as strongly pro-nuclear as would be a governmental nuclear oversight body that was not largely funded from fossil fuel tax revenue. That conflict of interest colours virtually all publically funded thinking. Without it, the IAEA would more strongly stress that while the increase in thyroid cancers is real, it will lead to very few deaths, and projections of thousands of Chernobyl deaths are entirely theoretical, and have no more grounding in reality than would hormesis-based projections of thousands of lives saved.

    Barton Paul Levenson’s comment 80 refutes a charge of KGB funding of activities such as his; that charge is indeed very foolish. Fossil fuel tax revenues bring in billions a week, and not just in the Soviet era but this week; they are a much more sensible explanation.

  21. FatBoy:

    I think the article showed balance, which is needed in this subject. Experts are not always right , they can only give an opinion based on their understanding and knowledge. The courts are littered with cases of oposing expert opinion. Furthermore extremists, on both sides, degrade many an argument with polarized views. So frequently the truth lies somewhere between black and white

  22. L M Anderson:

    I often remain silent, reading the comments posted.

    After reviews of climate models I find the predictions too conservative, the hand played by humans in climate change far too conservative, and the exponential rate of change in warming to be far more aggressive and advanced than most of the quoted model data presented so far. The number’s and results are there.

    There is so much outstanding work out there.

    With all due respect for all my colleagues in this arena, we should non-sugar coat these predictions.

    The only way to get humanity as a whole to look at the future and how to deal with the inevitable effects, is to not sugar coat what is happening and will happen; when, where, how much to the best of our ability collectively regardless of the political or corporate world. The results of the real numbers are affecting real people, not those inside the bubble of the corporate and political realms.

    What is needed is a model that shows the non-sugar coated predictions/scenarios in which I agree with my friend and colleague David Suzuki, that the change is here now, that we are already in it. What we , as scientists need to do is to de-conservatize the predictions. We’re not politicians, we are the data and numbers people.
    The data and equations don’t fudge. Politicians do unfortunately [for their corporate minders], but the numbers and results don’t.

    What we have found are exponentially accelerated changes and human sociological/economic effect scenarios far more significant than many governments and corporations are willing to accept..

    As in the first stages of cancer, denial is ususally the most natural human reaction to a malignancy, hence we deal with the first stages of the global malignancy of human contributed climate change; some realizations of the pending battle for human survival, but still denial. Now, playing the part of the notifying physicians, we should always be blunt about the reality.

    Hopefully, in the near future, we shall have a new place in which to finalize this model along with the human factor, including the sociological and economic effects scenarios.

  23. Randy Ross:

    Considering all of the discussions of the quality of various energy production methods, I was struck by the following article:
    on current research into geothermal energy.
    Obviously, no one method is going to wean us completely off of fossil fuels, but this is a very promising concept, and could allow geothermal energy generation to be used in far more areas than it is currently.

  24. Sashka:

    Re: 111

    I didn’t assume that he’s right. I concluded that he’s right. There’s nothing circular about making my own conclusions and illustrating them by the current proceedings.

  25. Dan Hughes:

    #113, can you point me to an article in which I can read about this integration, “France’s nuclear power industry is heavily subsidised and, of course, integrally linked to its nuclear weapons programme.” Is the same true in the US and other countries that have large nuclear-electric generation? And do all countries that have nuclear-electric capability also have nuclear weapons programs? Which do and which don’t?


  26. Lynn Vincentnathan:

    #116, I agree that all miners & factory workers, etc. should be kept in mind — so it really does behoove us to REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE as much as possible.

    We should also think of the Niger uranium miners and the pastoral lands that are being destroyed by the mining. These people cannot even afford electricity, but their livelihood (as meager as it is) is being destroyed. They don’t have the high mining standards that we have in the U.S. When I asked the ComEd man where they got their uranium, he said from the spot market (could be from anywhere in the world).

    Marx wrote about each product containing the blood, sweat, and tears (the labor) of the worker, but we can go further; each product contains environmental harm (aside from the obvious benefits we & the workers derive from products).

    I, for one, would like to see some carbon counter that indicates the GHG emissions involved in each product. Then I could choose, say Toothpaste A (which involves less GHG emissions) over Toothpaste B (which involves more). And I’d bet that Toothpaste A also costs less!

  27. SecularAnimist:

    There are two entirely rational reasons to be opposed to nuclear power:

    1. It relies on mining, processing, transporting and indefinitely storing massive amounts of the most toxic substances known to man, of which very small amounts are sufficient to not only poison millions of humans to death, but if widely dispersed, are sufficient to poison entire bioregions for centuries.

    2. It relies on mining, processing, transporting and indefinitely storing massive amounts of substances of which very small amounts are sufficient to make the most destructive weapons known to man, with a single weapon capable of incinerating an entire city and poisoning the surrounding region (see above).

    Proponents of a world wide electrical generation system based on thousands of nuclear power plants, distributed throughout all the various nations of the world, are proposing that humans can operate and maintain a vast and incredibly complex system based on the above two points, infallibly, forever.

    And people who are concerned about this proposition are called “irrational”.

  28. Ike Solem:

    RE#125, etc.
    When it comes to issues of global warming and replacing fossil fuel energy supplies, policy should be based on science, but what happens when vested fossil fuel interests have too much influence on government is that science (especially science funding) becomes based on policy, which is putting the cart in front of the horse.

    Some examples of this problem are:
    (1) the push for putting more people on Mars or the Moon instead of funding a comprehensive satellite and ocean sensor network for the entire globe that would result in masses of new data on the oceans, glaciers, land masses and atmosphere.

    (2) Failure to invest substantially in renewable energy research, particularly into bringing down the cost of high-efficiency solar panels and increasing the efficiency of carbon-neutral fossil fuel-free biofuel production (cellulosic ethanol as well as algal ethanol and biodiesel) – instead we see pushes for ‘clean coal’ or ‘coal synfuel’ production.

    (3) Failure to even begin planning for a transition to a zero-fossil fuel use energy economy. In this respect, natural gas and nuclear are preferable to coal and oil (natural gas has the highest ratio of energy produced: carbon emitted – due to all C-H bonds, unlike coal and oil), but effective solar and wind are definitely even more preferable in the long run, especially combined with highly energy-efficient technology.

    (4) Failure of government science institutions to acknowledge the severity of the climate situation due to constant political pressure to revise estimates of the effects of global warming downwards. This is often due to threats of removing funding from institutions that don’t cooperate; thus there is a general tendency among government scientists to understate the problem.

    It’d be nice to say, “let’s just study the science”, but over and over again we see discredited scientific arguments brought up to ‘challenge’ the notion of global warming, and you see inordinate media coverage given to a small group of fossil fuel-funded climate contrarians, and so on – and the only ‘conclusion’ that makes sense is that science is not guiding policy, but that pre-agreed policy is attempting to control science – which is not a good situation. I mean, even “Google News” is using Sherwood Idso’s “CO2 Science Magazine” as a “news source” right now (try Google News, “CO2 fertilization”) – what a travesty.

  29. Karen Street:


    50 or so deaths are so far attributed to Chernobyl; the high estimate today is that 4,000 may die from Chernobyl over 7 – 8 decades. Someone cited a higher WHO figure — I’d like to see where WHO says that.

    Thousands of coal miners have died in the Ukraine alone since Chernobyl, just from accidents. The Ukraine, if it keeps statistics on black lung disease, doesn’t reveal them.

    More US coal miners will die this year from accidents and black lung disease than uranium miners have died total in providing uranium for power and bombs. Though the government and mine industry were culpable in the high death rate among uranium miners.

    Here is a comparison on the relative safety of different energy sources.

    When I began looking at how energy sources compare, I noticed that anti-nuclear power people didn’t actually say that anyone would die from long-lasting, highly radioactive waste; they just leave it to the imagination. I also learned that there is only occasionally overlap between public and scientific and policy discussions of dangers of energy sources. And that people are able to segregate in their hearts or in their minds 8 Chernobyls each year in the US from coal power, with anxieties that there might be another Chernobyl some year from nuclear power.

    So many lives, so many species, are affected by our technology choices. I hope that antis will consider examining how serious concerns about nuclear power are, compared to concerns about the immediate alternatives for the next few decades.

    And I have changed my behavior! Lots! No more flying, not this year, hardly get into a car anymore, and it’s not mine. I feel able to do this — I have had years to consider shifting, and motivation — climate change and health. I do not anticipate that enough others will choose to do this, that we can get by with a little natural gas plus a little hydroelectric.

  30. Jim Crabtree:

    Re: 110 Lynn:

    The Oconee Nuclear Plant (Duke Energy) here in upstate SC already makes use of a pump back system. There are two man-made lakes (lakes Keowee and Jocasee). One is used for cooling purposes and the other is a reservoir for holding the water until off hours when the water is pumped back into the other lake.

    A problem with nuclear plants and GW: They require lots of water for cooling and it must be below a certain temperature. Both lakes mentioned above are deep lakes on the edge of the mountains and are cold. But this requirement is going limit where the nuclear plants can be built.


  31. Nico Siegmund:

    Good mention of a great article. This is really giving a perfect overview of climate change research for lays and amateurs interested in the topic (such as me :D).
    I really appreciate the work you guys are doing.
    Congratulations especially to Stefan for his concise contribution on WDR 2 a coupe of weeks ago. Keep up the good work, guys! You sure brought me to working in climate protection in a company now!


  32. Eli Rabett:

    France produces about a third less CO2 per capita than Germany and the UK, and more than three times less than the US. Small countries with petroleum industries have even larger per capita CO2 emissions (mostly because of refining).

  33. Eli Rabett:

    As far as shifting farming northwards in North America, it is pretty hard to grow on the Laurentian shield

  34. Dan Hughes:

    re: #131. There is nothing in that post that is a correct statement.

    “The Oconee Nuclear Plant (Duke Energy) here in upstate SC already makes use of a pump back system. There are two man-made lakes (lakes Keowee and Jocasee). One is used for cooling purposes and the other is a reservoir for holding the water until off hours when the water is pumped back into the other lake.”

    There is a pumped-storage facility, Bad Creek, higher up the hills above Lake Jocasee. Water is not pumped between Lake Keowee and Lake Jocasee.

    “A problem with nuclear plants and GW: They require lots of water for cooling and it must be below a certain temperature. Both lakes mentioned above are deep lakes on the edge of the mountains and are cold. But this requirement is going limit where the nuclear plants can be built.”

    Nuclear-electric power plants are built along the coasts of oceans; cold deep lakes are not necessary. There is a three-unit system here in the US in AZ and nuclear units operate in FL, for two examples among many. Neither AZ or FL are known for having any deep cold lakes.

    Coal and natural gas based generating power plants need water for cooling too. Nuclear power plants are not unique in this respect.

  35. SecularAnimist:

    Mr. Rabett, on the site that you link to, you write “… the interesting point about these figures is the difference between the UK and Germany on one hand and France on the other. Nuclear electrical generation appears to reduce CO2 emissions/capita by about a third.”

    However, the UN figures you chart on that site are apparently for CO2 emissions from all sources, not just from electrical generation.

    Moreover, Britain currently has 14 nuclear power plants which produce 21 percent of Britain’s electricity. Germany has 17 nuclear power plants which produced 26 percent of Germany’s electricity in 2006.

    I think your conclusion that “nuclear electrical generation” in and of itself reduces per capita GHG emissions by one third is unwarranted, given that both Britain and Germany do use nuclear electricity generation, and that contributions to per capita GHG emissions from other sources than electricity generation, e.g. from transportation, must also be taken into account.

    It would be necessary to analyze the GHG emissions of Britain, Germany and France from all sources to determine what role, if any, France’s larger reliance on nuclear electrical generation actually plays in lower per capita GHG emissions.

  36. Margo:

    Adding to Dan’s comment: The Palo Verde nuclear power plant just outside Phoenix Arizona is not near any body of water.

    And, of course, all power plants need some place to reject heat. This has nothing to do with the fuel source and everything to do with the second law of thermodynamics. Large bodies of cold water happen to make convenient heat sinks– but they aren’t absolute requirements.

  37. Burn boron in pure O2 for car power:

    Sounds as if SecularActivist might be Mark Morano.

    France’s nuclear powerplants actually produce something like 92 percent of its consumption; there are substantial exports.

    [Response:Careful. Comparisons to Morano are definitely ad-homs… -gavin]

  38. Jim Crabtree:

    Re 135: Dan:

    Hate to tell you, but lake Jocassee is also a pump back hydro facility and the water comes out of Lake Keowee.

    I had forgotten about Bad Crrek (memory lapse – I used to hike up in that area before the facility was built. The last time I went to hike up there (in the 1970’s), the road was blocked by well armed guards).

    As far as cooling water, the cooler the water, the more efficient the plant can operate. In a warmer country, there will most likely be less water. Warmer cooling water requires more water. See the following:

    I know reactors can be built in places like Az and Fla, but they need lots of cooling water and that will be decreasing. There have been nuclear plants that have had to be throttled back because of the cooling water being too warm.


  39. TAC:

    Thanks for providing the link to the very interesting and accessible Emanuel article.

  40. Charles Muller:

    #136 Don’t understand your logic. In France, we’ve an electric nuclear production of 431 TWh (UK : 75 TWh ; Germany : 154 TWh). Independently of the number of reactors, you’ve just to compare mean CO2 emissions for 1 kWh produced with nuclear or gas/coal plants : in France, you get 6 g/kWh for nuclear, 427 g/kWh for gas, 978 g/kWh for coal (source:CEA/EDF/DRD).

    If your priority is CO2 reduction, nuclear power is a good technology. But all depends of priorities, and environmentalist movement has to be clear on that. In my opinion, the “no… no…” solution is not a solution, just a radical rhetoric. Everybody hopes we’ll get in the future an abundant, safe, renewable and clean ernegy. But for the moment and next decades, we must choose between existing and operative technologies.

  41. Eli Rabett:

    #138 Do you have numbers for the amount of hydro and coal in France? My impression is that there are a number of small hydro plants around the country, so coal and nat gas may essentially not be used.

    More to the point, to go nuclear for power generation was a policy decision made by the government about 30-40 years ago and represents the type of effective policy that can be implemented. It is a chimera to insist that the majic market will do it all.

  42. Charles Muller:

    #142 For national production of electricity in 2005 (source EDF) :
    – total 549, 4 TWh
    – nuclear 430,0 TWh (78,3%)
    – coal/gas 62,2 TWh (11,3%)
    – hydro + renewable 57,2 TWh (10,4%)

  43. Deech56:

    This is a bit OT (to start with – not that I would be the first) but Friday, 2 Feb is the beginning of the Fourth Assessment Report (FAR?) from the IPCC. I am sure I am not alone among readers when I say that I await the analysis by the good people of RealClimate, although I believe that faithful readers will probably not see much that is new. Keeping up with the literature has its benefits. There is an opportunity for many of us readers to get the science out to the “real world” and become point the way towards responsible stewardship. The issue of climate change is more than an academic exercise.

    The discussions brought up by Dr. Emanuel’s article (as well as the article itself) are enlightening. I may disagree with some of his criticisms of academia, but 1) certainly there is room for a range of opinions, and 2) as a mixture of the physics, the models and the data, the science is very well synthesized and presented. I hope that this article and others can bridge the gap between the FAR and the general public. Maybe some of us who have been immersed in the science (and those of us who are scientists in other fields) can help.

  44. Hank Roberts:

    that’s a rather famous nuclear plant, actually. Three reactors, biggest plant ever.
    It’s a poster child for how hard it is to succeed with intelligent design. Nuclear Plant Has Flaw Undetected for 19 Years … [emergency cooling system designed wrong]
    The nation’s largest nuclear power plant tripped offline June 14, causing momentary panic for system operators … “the event began when a bird contaminated an insulator” in the Phoenix area.

    Lots of interesting reading at the root of that second link. It’s the
    Office of Energy Assurance

  45. SecularAnimist:

    Charles Muller and Eli Rabett:

    What I am saying is simply that Mr. Rabett cited data showing that the per capita GHG emissions of France are one-third less than those of the UK or Germany, and then attributed this difference to nuclear electrical generation. I replied that that is an unwarranted conclusion from that data.

    First, all three countries operate nuclear power plants and generate some portion of their electricity from nuclear power. So where Mr. Rabett wrote “Nuclear electrical generation appears to reduce CO2 emissions/capita by about a third”, what he is really saying is “France’s greater reliance on nuclear electrical generation appears to reduce CO2 emissions/capita by about a third”, or that to derive around 80-90 percent of electricity generation fron nuclear vs. 20-25 percent, or in rounder numbers to triple or quadruple the amount of nuclear in the generation mix, irrespective of other factors (e.g. what is the rest of the mix?), in itself is responsible for reducing per capita emissions by one third.

    The simple data on per capita emissions is not really sufficient to demonstrate that.

    Second, the per capita GHG emissions are not only from electrical generation, but from other sources such as fuels for transportation, fuels for heating buildings, etc. and differences in this sector must be considered when explaining the difference between the three countries.

    So, Mr. Rabett’s conclusion is unwarranted. If there is a sector by sector analysis of the sources of GHG emissions in those three countries, that would provide a better basis for determining the reason that France’s per capita GHG emissions are lower than those of the UK and Germany.

    Burn boron wrote: “Sounds as if SecularActivist might be Mark Morano.”

    gavin replied: “Careful. Comparisons to Morano are definitely ad-homs”

    I don’t know who Mark Morano is, and I am not him.

    I am learning not to be surprised when criticism, skepticism or concern about nuclear power is greeted by name-calling. Including, on this thread, an accusation that opponents of nuclear power are dupes or paid agents of the Soviet KGB.

    Charles Muller wrote: “If your priority is CO2 reduction, nuclear power is a good technology.”

    If your priority — in the sense of urgency — is CO2 reduction, then nuclear power is not a particularly good technology, because even under the most aggressive build-up scenarios proposed by the industry, it will be decades before nuclear power significantly reduces the projected growth in GHG emissions from new power plant construction let alone begins to have a significant impact on current emissions levels by replacing existing coal plants.

    Wind turbines and solar photovoltaic can be brought online much faster. Both technologies are already growing very rapidly. According to the WorldWatch Institute, in 2005 global wind power capacity grew 24 percent to nearly 60,000 megawatts, four times the growth in nuclear power capacity, and production of photovoltaics grew 45 percent to nearly 1,730 megawatts, six times the level in 2000.

    And private sector investment is flooding into both of these rapidly growing industries, in contrast to nuclear power which has always, everywhere, been entirely a product of massive state subsidies — in the USA over $100 billion since the beginning of nuclear electrical generation, compared to around $6 billion for wind and solar.

    We can reduce GHG emissions more effectively, more rapidly, more cost-effectively, and more safely, by a four-part program of (1) rapidly deploying wind turbine farms and distributed rooftop photovoltaics, especially the new low-cost thin film photovoltaics (e.g. Nanosolar and Ovonic); (2) improving batteries, fuel cells, solid hyrdogen storage, flywheels, and other forms of electricity storage for both centralized, distributed, and mobile use; (3) developing a next-generation intelligent electrical grid — an electricity Internet — optimized for distributing electricity to consumers from a variety of large and small, baseline or intermittent, centralized or distributed producers; and above all (4) maximizing the efficient use of electricity by consumers, than we can with a massive buildup of nuclear power generation.

  46. Martin Lewitt:

    Dr. Emanuael’s article is refreshingly honest in its admission that the AGW article is based on “faith” in the models. He, however, neglects or is unaware of the evidence that his faith has been proven unjustified, by the IPCC diagnostic subproject work of Roesch. All, yes ALL, of the AR4 models being used for the next IPCC report had a positive surface albedo bias relative to two recent satellite data sets. This failure of “different parameterizations” and “very likely,different sets of coding errors” to eliminate such correlated bias is probably due not only to the shared code history that he mentions but to the comfort that some modelers now have in validating against other models rather than focusing on the actual climate data.

    Since these correlated biases in the models against solar forcing are larger than the net energy imbalance thought to be responsible for the recent warming, it comes as no surprise that the models cannot reproduce the recent warming by natural causes alone. This despite the data that solar activity for the last 70 years is at one of its highest levels in the last 8000 years per Solanki, and the climate commitment research which shows that a sustained increase in forcing can take a century or more to equilibrate.

    In accepting the model projections of future climate, Dr. Emanuel also fails to note that these projections ignore the research by Solanki and others that the current high levels of Solar activity are unlikely to continue, i.e., they assume that the current unusually high levels of solar activity will continue.

    Dr. Emanuel appears to also be wrong when he states “One obvious hurdle the model must pass is to be able to replicate the current climate, including key aspects of its variability, such as weather systems and El Niño.” He apparently was unaware that Dr. James Hansen’s highly publicized 2005 Science article on the earth’s energy imbalance was based on model runs that did not reproduce the ENSO phenomena.

    See my “Comment by” link for the specific references.

  47. Paul G. Brown:

    Look, I think the evidence is clear that nuclear energy is overwhelmingly safer than coal, cheaper than many renewables and cleaner than gas. But like I mentioned upthread, the big question has to do with waste management. It isn’t just a question of what to do with spent fuel. It’s also what to do with old reactors, and so forth.

    We’ve evidence of 200 years of coal / oil / gas extraction. But the dangerous life of spent nuclear fuel is measured in tens of thousands of years. The best kind of mental model I’m familiar with doesn’t involve centralized storage at all but instead grinding the stuff up really fine and distributing it through the atmosphere or into the deep earth in ways that make its presence indetectable.

    The more I read about it, the closer I get to accepting nuclear power into the mix. But the case for it isn’t quite so lay-down-obvious as people who consider the question with a relatively narrow, technical frame of reference seem to think. What we’ve learnt from our experience with hydrocarbons is that understanding the complete picture is really, really important.

  48. Ike Solem:

    Martin, the “actual climate data” that you say modellers should be testing against – well, it sure would be nice if govenment funding for data collection in the oceans had been made a priority decades ago. As it was, our government kept critical data on the thinning Arctic ice sheet (collected by nuclear submarines under the ice) secret for well over a decade for ‘national security reasons’ – and now, instead of funding a global network of ocean sensors, the funding has apparently moved to “putting a man on Mars”- you’d think the Cold War never ended. Do deliberate efforts to prevent data on global warming from reaching the public constitute “politicization of the debate?”

    In any case, testing the models against each other is necessary – if it wasn’t being done, the contrarians would be howling about it.

    The “solar sunspot cycle explains everything” statement has been thoroughly debunked as well, see “The lure of solar forcing”, and also Did the Sun hit record highs over the last few decades?

    Regardless of any discussion about solar irradiance in past centuries, the sunspot record and neutron monitor data (which can be compared with radionuclide records) show that solar activity has not increased since the 1950s and is therefore unlikely to be able to explain the recent warming.

    As far as GCM’s not reproducing El Nino, they don’t reproduce local rainfall patterns either; in fact attempting to predict El Nino more then a year in advance is still very questionable, putting El Nino in the ‘mid-scale’ phenomena range; see for a discussion. Again, this is an issue where comprehensive ocean data would improve the lead time for ENSO predictions.

    On the Hansen paper, see Answers About the Earth’s Energy Imbalance by James E. Hansen as well as Planetary Energy Imbalance, RC 5-05

  49. Ike Solem:

    Why the obsession with nuclear on this thread? The facts are that solar, wind and biofuels can make up for a very large percentage of current energy demand when coupled with energy-efficient technology; process engineering is bringing costs down as well; for examples see:

    Engineers Devise New Process To Improve Energy Efficiency Of Ethanol Production, Jan 07

    Microbial Savings: Lower-cost Production Of Ethanol From Biomass Sources Jan 07

    Fuels Made From Prairie Biomass Reduce Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Dec 06

    Engineered Yeast Speeds Ethanol Production, Work Could Boost Supply Of Biofuel, Dec 06

    That’s just a small sample of of modern biofuel developments; there is an equally long list of promising developments in solar, wind and energy storage technologies.

    There is a limited supply of uranium as well; in the long run nuclear is just a stopgap measure – and I’ve yet to see a convincing method for safe long-term storage of the very hot fission products that result from the process. The real focus should be on stopping the use of coal and oil immediately, and perhaps using nuclear and natural gas until a completely fossil-fuel free energy infrastructure can be developed.

  50. James:

    Re #128: Your two reasons for opposing nuclear power would be rational, if the points themselves weren’t flat-out wrong.

    Consider #1: First, the amounts of waste generated aren’t “massive”, at least by comparison with the amount of waste generated from fossil fuels. In “The Revenge of Gaia”, Lovelock says that a single year’s production of CO2, if solidified, would make a pile 1 mile high, and 12 in circumference. (I haven’t checked his figures, though.) Then there are mine tailings, fly ash, the radioactive materials released when coal is burned, oil spills…

    Second, the wastes are far from being “the most toxic substances known to man”. Most aren’t particularly toxic at all; none come anywhere close to natural biological poisons such as ricin, which you can grow in your garden. Another fallacy here is that harm done is proportional to the dose, so that if a large radiation exposure kills people, a tiny one must be harmful too. Yet we can find numerous examples in nature of things that are beneficial, even necessary, in small amounts, yet are poisons in excess. Vitamin A is a classic example; another is the recent case of a woman who died from drinking too much water. Then for an even closer parallel, there’s sunlight. Too much will cause health problems, but so will too little.

    As for the claim that radioactive wastes will “poison entire bioregions”, take a look at the so-called “Dead Zone” around Chernobyl. It’s a wildlife sanctuary: perhaps the healthiest & most biodiverse one in Eastern Europe.

    A discussion of point #2 would get off into international politics, so I’ll just say that the time to lock that particular barn door was before the horse was stolen.